Sunday 30 December 2012

New Year, New Start

The tradition of the Christmas creche is widespread in countries with a Roman Catholic cultural background and Costa Rica is no exception.
Public buildings, like the Teatro Nacional in San Jose. have the creche, or 'portal' set up either outside - the weather being clement - or inside.
Banks and offices also create their portals and the approach of Christmas is the sign for children to ask that the home portal be set up, the figures approaching the manger day by day.

My favourite, though, is this one set up by a friend; an artist in wood and paint, a postman in his day job, while he was building his new house last year.....

Amid  the mess and the detritus of a building site, he made this portal for his family, to make it really Christmas....and I discovered it on being invited, as every year, to his New Year celebrations.

For that event it didn't matter that the house was unfinished as everything took place outside to accomodate the assembled, friends, waifs and strays all perching on chairs brought out for the elderly or on logs, stones and building materials for the rest: the elderly ladies refusing (for form's sake) to believe that the wine was not fruit juice and glugging away happily; the children playing with the dogs; the beer circulating, plates of food on the trestle table and the television brought out to add its contribution while waiting for midnight and the national anthem.

The centrepiece was the fire...with a vast cauldron perched on breezeblock in its midst where lard sizzled, awaiting the plantains, potatoes and pork pieces - chicharrones - which would form the main event of the feast.

The master of the house is also a master cook of chicharrones and served his offerings at midnight as the anthem blared out and the skies around exploded in fireworks.
Hot food, cold beer and good company to celebrate another New Year...what would it bring?

It has been, on the whole, a great year...good news on my husband's health,  The Neighbour hammered by the court, the work on the house in San Jose advancing and plenty of discoveries made in what is still our new life.

There has been a downside, though, which has made blogging less of a pleasure than it used to be....the stalking by those who want to know what we are doing by the backdoor, as it were, rather than doing the normal, open thing of using the 'phone or e mail.

I'd hoped we were done with that, but I was mistaken as I discovered when one bright spark telephoned my mother to find out whether I was actually in Europe or whether, as he said, I was using the blog as a red herring.

There are limits, and having a woman in her nineties bothered by the unpleasant obsessions of others is one of them. It also made me aware of the number of times I had decided not to write something beause of the eyes at the keyhole and I have decided not to continue with this blog...nor with French Leave. The pleasure is tainted.

You have given me so much....friendship, support, information...opened my eyes to so much,...and I am very grateful.

I will continue to blog elsewhere....and would be delighted to give you the new address if you would care to e mail me.

Happy New Year to you all.

Thursday 20 December 2012

You mightn't happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?

I landed at Juan Santamaria airport on the evening of the eighteenth of December.
The cheese landed on the evening of the nineteenth, having taken a little break in Madrid.

It, and the suitcase containing it, have just been delivered to the door by a charming gentleman who, intrigued by the aroma of his cargo, enquired as to the nature of the contents.
He recoiled as if faced by a striking snake when I freed the zips and with the driving force of a thousand horse the collective odours of the cheeses of France and England made their presence known.

He gathered himself together.

Had something died?

Costa Rica is not a great cheese producing nation.

All stacked away in the fridge...not ideal, but when in the tropics....I can count my journey as finally over, and look forward to the first band of visitors arriving tonight, the only anxiety being whether - having contumaciously decided to travel via the United States - the packages of whole smoked fish will get past U.S. customs.

I have enjoyed seeing friends, meeting and telephoning fellow bloggers, visiting old haunts and new; have managed to do most of the admin things which needed attention, have visited mother, but am truly relieved to be home, where not only has the kitchen been finished but the exterior of the house has been painted in a most dashing combination of deep yellow and green.

The dogs were as delighted to see me as I was to see them, the newly hatched ducklings are waddling about in their pen and reducing the contents of their water bowl to sludge in the space of an hour, the hoses are laid out for watering and every house I passed on my way home was alive with Christmas lights.

And what do I remember of my trip?

That the fashion for Mod style pork pie hats has returned for girls in France.

That ankle boots are worn...usually looking incongruous on the end of stick thin legs.

That travel by Eurolines resembles an ill managed retreat from Moscow.....
Firstly, their bus no longer leaves outside the front door of Tours station but from a layby about a kilometre away down a dingy side street deserted at night, where the office does not open until you have started to board the bus, only to be repelled and sent to the office to get a boarding pass.
Then you are decanted  at Lille station in the dark of a winter morning where the perversity of SNCF is such that it first refuses to open the doors, leaving the Eurolines stragglers outside in the wind tunnel and then refuses to close them, so that the said stragglers have to find refuge from the chill in the only warm places - the ticket office and the loos, the haunts of SNCF employees.
Staff at the franchised caffs have to work in the cold.
Unloading the luggage at the Chunnel  is another joy.....large smug young customs officers watching tired travellers struggling to put luggage on a scanner, the ritual stop and search of a Bulgarian, the queue for the loos.....the only pleasure being on the approaches to Victoria Coach station where social mobility is such that areas of the South Circular are becoming sub gentrified.

That a first visit to Spain was a delight.

That while the majority of men above middle age in Southampton are well built and fair haired those characteristics seem to disappear when considering younger men.

That travelling on the bus in Southampton is a friendly, chatty affair.

That the carol concert by candlelight would have been improved by some mulled wine.

That the food available in the U.K. is infinitely varied and of good quality.

That my days of lumbering two overloaded suitcases, a cabin bag and handbag across Europe are over.

Roll on Christmas, I'm just about ready for it. Cheese and all.


Saturday 24 November 2012

We're no awa' tae bide awa'

Supposedly sung by the 51st Highland division going into the bag at St.Valery sur Somme in 1940.

Father wouldn't know...he and a few mates had found a fishing boat..hull smashed in to avoid use by the Germans according to French orders... repaired it, and, bailing all the way, messed off to the other side of the Channel.
What, they wondered, had the French thought that the Kreigsmarine would do with it....invade England with six men singing Wir Fahren Gegen Engelland?

The subsequent court martial was not impressed by their opinion...they had disobeyed orders which were in their own interest. They could have been drowned.
Health and Safety is older than you think.

Spirited defence by the prisoners' friend (officer with bugger all legal knowledge but wise in the ways of courts martial) and the shortage of experienced troops got them off to fight again, rather than polishing dustbins in the glasshouse.

But it came back to me today as I packed for a trip to Europe...
I'll miss my blogging friends as I flit from Costa Rica to France, England and Spain with internet access severely limited.


I'm no awa' tae bide awa'....I'll aye come back and see ye.

Thursday 15 November 2012

A Week is a Long Time on Avenida Segunda

A week ago, riot police were hauling demonstrators away in paddy waggons, politicians were slugging it out with police and human rights organisations were accusing Costa Rica of police brutality as a peaceful demonstration protesting at mismanagement of funds for hospitals and clinics turned into a violent confrontation between demonstrators and police.

Today there was another, bigger, demonstration with the same purpose, filling Avenida Segunda....but this time marked by music and mutual respect.

The police from the Fuerza Publica (the ordinary police) lining the road were all women.....the squad of men held in reserve in case of problems were kept well away and no riot police were to be seen.

Observers from the Defensoria de los Habitantes (Ombudsman's office) were stationed at key points along the route.

This time, the marchers and their petitions were received by the board of the Caja (Health and Social Security department).

The same sort of marchers as service workers, but with more students this time, accompanied by clowns and musicians, exercising their right of peaceful protest.

The politicians embroiled in altercations last time presented flowers to the women police officers.
The march dispersed in the early afternoon.

Laura Chinchilla's government showed its hand last time.
The reaction of the Costa Rican people has shown them that it was the wrong hand to play.

Friday 9 November 2012

From Peace to Hours.

We were driving into San Jose yesterday.

The Men were going to continue work on the house there while waiting for the next instalment of kitchen units from the carpenter...I was going with them to go to the Social Security (Caja) offices to query a rise in our contributions.

First we wanted to check out a DIY emporium for a cooker hood...a quest which made it clear that when developers acquire the rights to land they take no thought for the access thereto.
We finally made it after three dead ends and near heart failure as we thought  we would be going through the toll station twice.

Cooker hood aboard we headed for the centre.
Always a nightmare...this time it was Hitchcock.
Blocked...and not helped by a large bakery van doing deliveries in the lane toook half an hour to get to the park by the Merced church on Avenida Segunda, the main traffic artery of San Jose.
There, all became clear...the flags ahead indicated that a demonstration was taking place and that the police had closed the road.

I asked Danilo to drop me would be quicker to walk to the offices which were on that road...while the Men went on to the house.

I caught up with the march which turned out to be people working in and using several out of town hospitals campaigning for money for better which their loudspeaker commentary alleged had been and was being swallowed by corruption by officials and politicians.
Mostly middle aged people, some women with children, only one union leader....a peaceful demo, heading, as I was, for the Caja offices.

The gates were locked on the main road side, but security staff were letting people in by the rear entrance overlooking the gardens so I took a ticket and awaited my turn.

The marchers were outside and the loudspeaker was giving it needed to cup your hands behind your ears to have a conversation.

A security guard accepted the petition the march leaders presented, but they were not allowed into the building....and no one from the Caja board of management would meet them either inside or outside, dismissing a march as being no way to negotiate.

I think what was to follow could have been avoided if the Caja board had had the courtesy to meet the march leaders as the demonstrators would then have dispersed.
As it was, the marchers stayed on the road, blocking it completely and San Jose's traffic - which flows like treacle at the best of times - was almost at a standstill.

Query answered I went to have lunch with The Men and came back via the Caja offices just before 1.00 pm, surprised to be following a running file of riot police...plainly these were the reserves as their clear shields only bore a piece of packing tape with their number written on it in ink as opposed to the official 'Policia' shields borne by the front liners.

On Avenida Segunda the riot police had succeeded in pushing the marchers to each side of the road and were holding the line of the pavements. Pedestrians coming from side streets were allowed to cross and cars were starting to come through as the traffic police, the Transitos, brought up a winch lorry to haul the marchers' loudspeaker van away.

I've been at a number of demonstrations in my time and the atmosphere on the pavements...from marchers and onlookers alike... was one of good humoured resignation, broken by cheers and shouts of support for the man in the loudspeaker van who was, by this time, holding forth at length on the iniquities of named politicians and giving it as his view that the current government were trying to run the Caja into the ground as an excuse for privatisation.
He was playing the national anthem when the Transitos applied the chains to his van....and the cheers of support broke into gales of laughter as the winch lorry moved majestically forward and the chains parted, leaving the van where it was.

''Only in Costa Rica!'

I went off. Another winch lorry had succeeded in hauling the loudspeaker van away and people were beginning to disperse.
Everything was peaceful, traffic was beginning to move....the drama was over.

So how was it that some hours later the road was again blocked...riot police were charging demonstrators...and opposition politicians were involved in violent altercations with the police?

Because some officious policeman had rounded up eleven demonstrators for blocking traffic and this brought not only the original demonstrators, but students of the University of Costa Rica and passers by back onto the road to protest at police brutality.
The politicians said they were there to negotiate with the police and thought they had arranged the release of the eleven....the release agreement was denied by the police chief in charge of the scene and protesters started throwing the contents of roadside waste bins at the police.
There were more arrests, jostling, injuries until the street was finally cleared in the early hours of the evening.

How had this happened in a country where people will do amost anything to avoid confrontation?

Corrupt institutions have been a fact of life in Costa Rica for years....but now people are no longer relying on colluding newspapers and television for their information. They have mobile telephones...they have the internet...and despite the draconian criminal defamation laws they are using them to good effect.
Whistleblowers have emerged in government departments....which has brought about a law against divulging 'secrets'...not just those of national security, but the dirty little backstairs secrets of collusion on contracts, ministers 'forgetting' to pay their taxes....with a maximum penalty of ten years in the jug.
The law has been taken to the Constitutional Court, the Sala Cuarto, where it is hoped it will be thrown out...but it indicates the government's response to public disquiet.

The classic Central American government response. Crush it. 

Monday 5 November 2012


When you climb up to the coffee plantation above the house, this is the view you have looking down into the Central Valley...the mountains in the distance being some forty kilometres away.
And this is the view in the other direction, across the gravel road to the mountain behind, where the spring which serves us with water is situated. Behind it, just three kilometres away, is the town....but you would think yourself miles from anywhere.

On these slopes, the coffee was rooted up years ago, when the boom of the seventies had subsided, but you can still see the terraces, now grazed by the brahma cattle.
While these are the slopes still down to coffee...the white dots are pickers.


And it's not a simple job...the coffee plant is not an amenable beast.
It puts forth a couple of early ripening berries on each wand, which have to be removed for the rest to ripen.

So pickers have to work the whole cafetal for very little in terms of financial the pickings are few.
We try to do this ourselves with Danilo, but Don Antonio will always help out too.

This is the coffee plant ready to harvest....if we want the best prices we want our pickers to take only the red fruit, but the pickers need to fill the cajeula...the official measuring unit, a square metal make it worthwhile coming out, so we compromise and go to a firm which will accept yellowish fruit as well....but, as their notice firmly fruit picked off the ground and no twigs!

The photographs show sunshine, but such are the conditions in our marginal for coffee... that the main haul of the picking is done in driving joke wearing one stout bin bag as a kilt, another one slit to make a hood and cloak, filling the picking baskets tied round the waist,  sliding down the muddy terraces to tip them into the sacks and, finally, bringing them down to the lower road to be weighed and paid out.

The coffee just about washes its face in money terms....pickers will be more difficult to get in the future....we are wondering whether to put the whole area down to pasture...whether to grow something else....or whether to keep on the coffee as a hobby.

This year's weather looks kindlier than previous years....we shall wait and see what the accounts tell us.

Saturday 3 November 2012

And shall Trelawny Live, or shall Trelawny die...

By Tre, Pol and Pen, ye shall know the Cornish men....but this one slunk in under the radar rejoicing in the name of McGuigan.

Our friend, the ticket of leave man, brought him over this evening, in the company of a bottle of Teachers, to escape their current lady friends discussing clothes, furniture and the urgency of Ticket of Leave Man and McGuigan purchasing more of the same for them.

It started politely enough....we all enjoy military history and whisky... and I have fond memories of Teachers as forming the essential other half to cider in the post match 'must have' chaser of the LSE Rugby Club...Dublin Dynamite.
You didn't need to be counselled to take it in saw to that for itself.

Still, no cider being in the offing, things remained civilised.
The American presidential election; Dumbo A versus Dumbo B with Goldman Sachs pulling the controversy.
The European Union; intent on a new Versailles Treaty to make the Clubmed pay for the daftness of German and French bank investment decisions...and Goldman Sachs pulling the strings.
Costa Rica...where the ruling elite could teach Goldman Sachs a thing or two....

We moved to the Highland Park.....and to discussion of more contentious matters.
Nationality. Patriotism.

Ticket of Leave Man reckoned he had no alliegance to governments so dozy as to get  involved in Korea and Vietnam...let alone Iraq and Afghanistan.

We reckoned that Locke's contract had long been broken on the side of the U.K. government.

McGuigan burst into song.

A good sword and a trusty hand
A merry heart and true,
King James's men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do.
And have they fixed the where and when
And shall Trelawny die
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why.

And shall Trelawny live
And shall Trelawny die
There's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why.

We loooked at him askance. Where was the philosophy nurtured by the spring of Highland water?

McGuigan explained. His philosophy was simple.

His mother's family were descended from Cornish miners who, unable to make a good enough living to keep their families, followed the gold rush to California and settled there...sending money home until things were stable enough for their families to follow them.
If, he reckoned, Cornwall had been independent, the money made from the mines would have stayed in Cornwall...and he wouldn't  have been born in the U.S.A.
As it was, his mother had married into a family descended from Irish he was doubly rebellious.
A quick chorus of

The bold Robert Emmet the darling of Erin

gave foundation to his claim and the night became hideous with song.

Clearing away the glasses later I reflected on the eclecticism of our musical heritage...and in particular on the songs we were taught at school when young.

Running from
Summer is icumen in

The Agincourt Carol

Who is Sylvia

Hearts of Oak

I wonder how many have survived multiculturalism and political correctness.